ACT VI – in which the men give in to the women's torture, unlike Gabrielle's stubborn warrior princess.
"They give up! We won! We won!" Calonike's ecstatic voice reached Gabrielle's ears long before the woman herself entered the inn.
Gabrielle and Xena had gone there to get some practical details straight before they would have to hit the dusty road once again. Even though the inn was only a short walk from Acropolis they had encountered several desperate soldiers along the way – many so swollen they could hardly walk. It was evident that the strike would soon break them. And today, finally, came the message of peace.
"Gabrielle, Xena? You there!?" Calonike burst through the door and cast a look around in the deserted dining hall.
"Up here," Gabrielle called from the top of the stairs. Calonike's face lit up and she met the bard hallway, catching the small women in a spontaneous hug, which Gabrielle, though taken slightly by surprise, immediately returned.
"You were right! It worked! They are surrendering their weapons. Official and conclusive peace negotiations are taking place as we speak!"
Calonike's neck and cheeks were flushed. She had clearly rushed to the inn with the great news, but still taken the necessary time to perfect her make-up and braid flowers into her hair. She was clearly expecting to see her husband soon, Gabrielle thought.
"That's amazing! I knew you could do it." The women, still standing halfway between the ground and first floor, both leaned against the railing.
"You did... and tonight Athenians, Spartans and the people of Corinth will celebrate the truce together! That's one of the reason I hurried to get here..." Calonike's gaze was part pleading request, part command. "We would never have succeeded without your efforts. You have to stay a few more days to celebrate the victory with us."
Gabrielle nodded. "I'd love to. And although Xena is eager to move on I am sure I can convince her to stay for at least another night." The bard tilted her head teasingly. "But Calonike, will we be seeing you at all tonight…?"
Calonike covered her mouth with her hand, but the wide smile she was trying to hide made any verbal reply redundant.
"Didn't think so." Gabrielle laughed. "Good for you."
"Well, I sure was reaching the end of my rope," Calonike admitted. "But enough about me – how are things panning out with your femme fatale? Is she wet and willing yet?"
Gabrielle had to confess that, sadly, not much progress had been made in that department. However, she did plan to take action soon.
"Then do it tonight," Calonike said with conviction. "After this strike the atmosphere will be so steamy you can drink from it. I doubt it'll leave even your tough warrior woman unaffected." She looked Gabrielle up and down. "But first we'll have to find you a different outfit."
Gabrielle was about to act all insulted, but Calonike had already grabbed her arm firmly and was pulling her down the stairs. She had to stumble along.
"Come on. It'll be a few more hours before my husband returns from the front. By then you'll be perfectly dressed to undress."
"By the gods, people have gone berserk."
The warrior woman simultaneously shook her head and cast a glance across her shoulder before slamming the door to their shared room shut.
"I had to climb piles of bodies on my way up the stairs, and had they only been drunkards sleeping it off… but oh, no! You'd think this inn was run by satyrs." She sat down heavily on an oak chair placed next to a small table lit by candles. Otherwise the room was mostly dark. "Gabrielle? Where are you?"
The visible jerk in Xena's body might be caused by Gabrielle's sudden manifestation out of the shadows. But there could also be an entirely different explanation.
Gabrielle had undergone one of Calonike's so-called make-overs. Her hair had been washed with vinegar, brushed repeatedly and was now shining brighter than ever. It was fastened with pearl pins in the back, but a couple of curly, golden locks swayed freely. She had vetoed heavy make-up, but accepted a bit of red to enhance her high cheek bones and lips, and her neck, wrists as well as less visible body parts had been scented with lavender oil. The dress, which was a perfect fit, was obscenely short and low-cut and so transparently thin that any undergarments would show through it. Which was exactly the argument Calonike had used to convince her not to wear any.
"You startled me," Xena said with a short and seemingly forced laughter. She was clearly having an uncharacteristically hard time maintaining eye-contact. She chose to focus on the bowl between Gabrielle's hands.
"I'm sorry," Gabrielle replied simply as she placed it on the table.
"What's in it? More of Lysistrata's stew?"
"Not quite." Gabrielle smiled. "It's something a bit more uplifting in the spirit of the evening. Something sweet." She looked directly into the warrior princess' light blue eyes and was surprised to find it easy. Perhaps because she no longer cared if her own eyes gave too much away.
It was Xena who broke their gaze for a change, using her sandals as the pretext. She bent to unlace them.
Gabrielle stopped her hand mid-air. "Let me do it," she insisted and kneeled in front of the warrior princess, well aware that this particular position would offer Xena a grand view of her barely covered breasts.
Fortunately for Gabrielle, Xena's sandals were tied with long leather laces in a criss-cross pattern continuing all the way up to her knees. Gabrielle took her time loosening the laces one at a time, letting her fingers dwell and deliberately brush against the tanned leg underneath in a tickling manner. Once the feet were freed, she took one between both her hands.
"You have remarkably slender feet. Has anyone ever told you that?" she teasingly asked as she gently massaged the sole and heel of her friend's foot. "There's definitely more 'princess' than 'warrior' about them." Her fingertips continued past the ankle and travelled up the lower part of Xena's leg.
Xena shifted uneasily. "What's in the bowl?" she asked once again.
Gabrielle straightened up, resting her palms against the warrior princess' knees. "Nectar and ambrosia."
"Get out," another stifled laugh left Xena's lips as she shifted once again, this time managing to free her knees from Gabrielle's hold.
"You don't believe me?" Gabrielle tilted her head, then slowly got up and pulled another chair over. "Alright, I may have exaggerated a little. But it is almost divine."
She sat directly across from her friend, moved so close their knees had to slide in between each other. All tangled up, like braided fingers. Xena, having her back against the wall, could not withdraw this time, but she clearly did her best to prevent hers and Gabrielle's legs from actually touching. It made no difference. The tiny strip of air between them was burning hot.
Gabrielle's hand disappeared into the bowl and retrieved a piece of fruit glistening with honey. She made no attempt to hide her pleasure as she ate it, then carefully sucked the remaining honey off her thumb and index finger. She could almost taste Xena's intense gaze on her lips and had to suppress a smile.
"Would you like to try it?" she asked, and before the warrior princess could muster any objection, Gabrielle's hand had retrieved another piece of fruit. She held it to her friend, almost grazing her lips. Xena hesitated for a heartbeat, unintentionally allowing a drop of honey to fall from Gabrielle's fingers and onto the warrior princess' collarbone. Gabrielle saw it and smiled, but Xena was oblivious as she finally accepted the offering.
The touch of lips and fingertips was fleeting, but none the less it did something to the women's surroundings. The room couldn't possibly have gone quiet – the party downstairs was still going strong and would probably last until sunrise – yet their own sounds suddenly seemed oddly clear. Their mingled breaths, the metallic rustling of Xena's breast plates.
The strange sensation in Gabrielle's abdomen was back, but this time she felt certain she wasn't the only one reacting to their proximity. She could easily make out the hard, rapid pulse along the side of Xena's neck, close to the collarbone. The stray drop of honey glistened in the candle light.
"You spilled a drop." Gabrielle leaned forward, inching even closer to her friend, forcing Xena's knee further in between her own thighs until it disappeared under the skimpy skirt. The young bard deliberately shifted as she reached for her friend's neck, thereby replacing the diminutive space between them with skin-on-skin contact. Xena jolted, as if struck by a bolt of lightning which travelled into Gabrielle's thighs and further still until the bard felt completely abuzz with electric current. Her lashes grazed Xena's cheek as she gently rubbed the honey away with a soft thumb.
"There," she whispered, lifting her face without moving back in her seat. She met Xena's flickering gaze and held it. The warrior princess wet her lips.
She is going to kiss me. The realisation hit Gabrielle with so much force she nearly tumbled to the floor. And sure enough, Xena began to stir. For a moment the angle and movement was just right, and Gabrielle's entire body hummed – but then the warrior princess abruptly changed her course, bolting from her seat so quickly Gabrielle was forced backwards.
"I forgot to feed Argo," she simply said and was out the door, sandals in hand, before the bard could get a single word in edgeways. The door was simply slammed shut, leaving Gabrielle breathless and alone.
END ACT VI